Easter Vigil, April 11, 2020
Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 28:1-10
When I was about sixteen my dad and stepmother took my sister and I on an epic river rafting trip on the middle fork of the American River. We did it over two days, camping one night by the riverside. I recall an idyllic scene that first evening, tossing a football while we stood in the river. The water was fairly shallow, maybe knee high, and while the current wasn’t dangerous for a person it was strong enough to carry off our ball, which added to the fun of it. Several times we saved the ball after an errant throw. But then as I lunged for a catch, one of my sandals slipped off. “My shoe!” I shouted, unable to grab it as it was swept away. Now, I had other footwear with me, and the joke was on me for the rest of the trip. Yet that odd little moment has stuck with me over the years. Our lives, our relationships, our very bodies are like running water, ever changing, full of possibility yet by the same token fragile, vulnerable. That tiny, almost mundane moment came into my mind as I thought about this Easter Vigil which we celebrate at a truly unprecedented moment, as we continue to shelter in place, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc in our world. It was not only the watery imagery of the iconic Exodus story of the Red Sea’s parting, as told by Dave, or the emergence of Jonah from the belly of the sea monster, as shared by Janet. It was also the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans, read by Elena, reminding us of our immersion in the waters of our baptism, waters in which we are joined by the crucified and risen Christ. In this moment in which we may feel as though we are still in the tomb, even as we proclaim the risen Christ who has burst forth from it, we are invited to receive that message of Christ’s Paschal presence, Christ’s immersion with us. We are invited to reach out and touch that Christ, to grab hold of him, to be anchored by him in the midst of the water, knowing that nothing can finally separate us from his risen presence.
In that emphasis on touch, Matthew’s account of the resurrection differs significantly from John’s which we’ll hear tomorrow. In common with the other accounts, Matthew locates the women at Jesus’s tomb, specifically Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” who had come to see it. “’Last at the cross, first at the tomb,’ the women have come to watch,” Anna Case-Winters describes them in her commentary on Matthew’s gospel. They were waiting in an act of love and of confirmation that truly Jesus was dead, yet in the process became “the first witnesses to the resurrection.” Those who were pushed to the margins were now at the center, as so often happens in Matthew’s gospel, the last once again becoming first, as Case-Winters notes. As they watched, an angel of God, pushing away the stone from the tomb, caused an earthquake. Be not afraid, the angel declared, in the sixth of seven times that phrase is uttered in Matthew. The eighth such declaration would come from Jesus’ own mouth as the women ran to share the good news of his resurrection with the other disciples. Mary and Mary stopped and went down to the ground, grabbing hold of his feet. As Case-Winters remarks, this moment underscores that the resurrection “‘had feet’— this was not a ghost.” Prior to these last two utterances of this phrase, we heard it in Matthew’s version of the Transfiguration. After the disciples had fallen to the ground in fear, Jesus had come and touched them, telling them not to fear. And so now here was this risen Jesus standing before the two Marys, reassuring them in the midst of their very understandable fear. Here was this risen “sign of Jonah,” words Matthew’s gospel had earlier put into Jesus’ mouth: “Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Humanity will be in the heart of the earth” (Mt 12:38). The risen Christ was one who had been in the watery depths of the grave, had burst forth from that belly, and stood now on the shore, his feet anchoring his terrified followers as they began to take in the staggering mystery of his risen life. The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans drops us right into the heart of that mystery. Not much narrative, just a dunking into the deep end of the pool. All of us who were baptized were baptized not simply into his risen life, not merely into the happy ending, but into his death. Baptism engrafts us into a body that has died and is raised. It does not erase the fact of his death. Rather, Paul’s way of talking about baptism as watery burial can remind us that not only are we immersed in the mystery of his life, death, and resurrection, but Christ is sunk into our life and our death. And from out of our suffering, out of that deep joining, he will raise us. He stands there on dry land, even as we may flail in the water, and remains that living anchor who will not let us be swept away. Nothing we have done or that may happen to us, no brokenness of relationship, no mistakes, no accident, no frailty, no pandemic, no very real and understandable fear, nothing can separate us from Christ. Nothing can contain or squelch his risen life. This is the bedrock truth of faith. This is the truth in which our baptism bathes us.
And so too is this: nothing can finally separate us from one another. In this moment, of course, we are not in a shared physical location as we normally would be, gathered around the fire, sharing these most ancient and living stories of our faith. We are in our locations in and around the Bay Area – and far beyond! In this moment of time we may very well feel overwhelmed, afraid. And we have every right to be. This night, the good news of the resurrection joins us in that place, meets us right here and right now. The risen Christ speaks to us even as we make our way through the rapid, changing currents of our world. He reminds us that nothing can stop the power of the resurrection, that the Paschal Mystery can and will, and even now does, hold us in our fragility. And he also points forward, beyond the borders of this moment, asking us to tell others that he goes ahead of us to Galilee. On the other side of this particular moment, there we will see him, even as we see him now. Held, anchored, assured in this moment, we are also being fortified to go forth, to be sent out to be bearers of his good news, of the radical newness of life that awaits us and even now is emerging in this world, the green blade rising from the buried grain, as the hymn tells it. So this night, dear friends, may we hold onto the feet of the risen Christ, feel that anchoring in the midst of this water, and know that the waters of our baptism equip us for just such a time as this. Alleluia, Christ is risen!